Tales from the Field

Michael Wu

Sep 19, 2023

West Kalimantan, Indonesia

Rainforest Country

Our story begins with a 3:30am departure from Jakarta. In Indonesia, like in other parts of the world, the flights at the crack of dawn are far and away the cheapest. So while the rest of the city slept, James, a couple members of the Bumiterra team, and myself left for the Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. After an hour flight to Pontianak, and then another hour flight to Sintang on a small two turbine plane, we took the final three-hour speedboat snaking up the Kapuas River to reach the heart of West Kalimantan – we were here in rainforest country.

Trekking through the Jungle

For the few weeks I was in Merakai, our days looked pretty similar. Every morning at 6am, we’d leave our hostel in the village and depart for the forest. It was early March, right at the end of Borneo’s rainy season, making the weather ideal for surveying. Each morning, while the sun was still bearable, we’d hike to a new part of the jungle with our local Dayak guide Adang, traversing through difficult hilly and swampy jungle terrain. Each kilometer felt like a real victory, with Adang leading the way with his machete effortlessly carving through the dense jungle undergrowth. At certain predetermined locations we mapped out the night before, we’d measure trees with our tape measure, clinometer, and fly the drone if it wasn’t too rainy. We’d return to a central campsite to eat lunch and ride out the midday heat, before returning to survey work in the afternoon before sunset.

Cultural Immersion and Paradise in Belubu

After a couple of hard weeks in the jungle, James decided to take the team and I for a weekend retreat to the mountains of Belubu.

Belubu is a mountain that’s shaped like one of the buttes that make up the landscape in the southwestern United States, steeply jutting out of the jungle canopy. And mountains can only mean one thing…waterfalls!

Against the advice of a famed American R&B group, we spent the morning chasing waterfalls as we walked in a slippery, rocky riverbed along the side of the Belubu mountains. We came across stunning waterfalls, tranquil waterbeds, and gushing whirlpools.

After we spent the better part of the day playing in the pristine waters of Belubu, we returned to an incredible sight. Our host Igas had built a remarkable oasis tucked alongside a piece of unforested land near the mountain. Admittedly, I was a bit taken aback by the level of luxury in the jungle and felt a built guilty that we were staying in such a nice location. Igas had built his fortune creating roads in West Kalimantan but always maintained a deep spiritual attachment to the rainforests, where he built this mountain oasis for his own retreats. We spent the weekend after our hike eating incredibly fresh Indonesian jungle veggies and tempeh, playing local games, and learning about Dayak customs.

Learnings from the Field

  1. Actual reforestation is hard work. If you look at the fine print, most ARR projects are “assisted natural regeneration” projects. Which I can completely understand given how difficult it is to actually reforest previously destroyed parts of the rainforest. It’s incredibly hot under the equator sun without the canopy, the bushes and ferns that grow in the place of pioneer species are incredibly dense, and the rolling hills make it difficult and swampy to traverse. We had to establish our own nurseries with native species, fill each polybag caringly with soil, protect the young seedlings from the hot sun, and nurture each tree on a regular basis. Afterwards, clearing out the dense bushes and ferns for planting was near hellish without heavy machinery or burning, neither of which we wanted to resort to for climate reasons, and we would rely only on machetes which made the clearing slow and painful.

  2. Hand measurement techniques are only 85% accurate. Ilham was our forestry expert, he went to school and studied forestry, and he taught me how height was measured. The clinometer is based on a series of assumptions. Firstly, we had to find a place where the top of the tree was easily identifiable. In a jungle environment where the canopy is dense, this is no easy feat and oftentimes amounted to our best guess. Once the top of the tree was identified, we then had to estimate how far away we were from the base of the tree. Again, in a jungle environment with hills and not a clear line of sight, this always amounted to an educated guess with error ranges of at minimum 10-15%.

  3. Properly hand measuring trees is slow. With a team of 5, measuring a single tree in the jungle took one minute each. In a given day, we’d regularly undershoot our targeted totals and only be able to measure a couple hundred trees in good weather. Why would it take so long and require so many people? We created a system where one person was in charge of recording numbers on the clipboard, another would measure the diameter of the tree with the tape measure, yet another person would be in charge of trailblazing with a machete, another would have the clinometer and measure height, and finally one person would be in charge of the GPS so we could record the location of each tree. If it were just one or two people, with all the steps involved this would have slowed us down even further.